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Herd Behavior and Moving Large Bunches of Cattle
in order to handle cattle in a less
stressful way is how cattle act in a herd. Unfortunately, this is one
of the hardest things to comprehend because most of us have never seen
cattle acting as a herd. This is because we create so much stress in
moving our cattle from pasture to pasture that we
basically blow the herd instinct out of them. We try to do
things which we conceive make them easier to move which actually causes
a great deal of stress. The very meaning of the word “herd” is a group
of animals which remain together, which is
what we never see. Fortunately, they still do some things on their own
which we can observe to show us the error of our ways. Cattle will
folllow each other with little effort as long as we start them in the
right way, as demonstrated in the following video. These cattle had
come in fresh two weeks before this video was taken. They had never
been through this gate, or into this pasture before, and the dog
"helping" me was just starting out, and deaf on top of it. Even though
she makes several mistakes, the steers not only go through the gate,
but don't scatter after going through.
Most of us want our cattle all going together in a bunch and drive them from behind. When cattle are scattered in a pasture, we can create we motion by traveling back and forth in a straight line across the back of the pasture. However, that is only to start them not to drive them the whole move. You will notice in most cases, that moving cattle in this manner if you are going up a steep hill (or getting closer to the pens, or going through a gate) the cattle wind up bunching up and slowing down. This is because they don’t like to be pushed into a crowd anymore than you do and cattle need to have a leader. Fifteen or twenty animals across the front of three hundred steers is not a lead. Even if you happen to think it is, those steers will not remain there for long when you are creating your motion from the back. When creating motion in this manner you get what I refer to as “tank track” milling. I have watched cattle being moved in this manner change the “lead” six times in less than a quarter mile. Rather than going through the gate on their own, the “herd” stops and people will do a “controlled mill” by creating motion on one side and moving it to the front and (hopefully) through the gate.
There are different analogies to describe this situation. The first one that comes to mind is pushing our trailer instead of pulling it. Wouldn’t it be hard for us to see where we are going? Yet that is what we are asking our cattle to do. Go forward blindly and hopefully push the front cattle with them enough to have a place to go.
in heavy traffic. Imagine
going to the Stockshow in
What makes you think that your cattle can get crowded in like that without stressing out?
are moving pairs. Imagine being in a strange
Now that you
have an idea of why your cattle are stressed and don’t hang around
together like a herd should, you can learn how do handle them to make
them a herd. The biggest mistake people make in this is expecting it to
work like magic in only one move. It takes time, and the less you move
your cattle the longer it will take. The more often you move
cattle the faster they will begin to act as a herd.
The steers in this picture were moved three times before they began grazing together like in this picture. They were purchased at a sale barn from several different owners and had no idea they were supposed to be a herd until they had been handled in a manner that allowed them to feel as a herd. Notice how all of them are facing the same direction while grazing? When the herd changes where it is grazing (or decides to go to water), the lead steer will begin walking. After he leaves, the rest will follow, but string out in single file to do so. When he stops to graze, the rest will begin stopping when they reach him. When you begin moving cattle so that they act as a herd, you will discover that each group of cattle will have its own lead animal. The other thing you will begin to notice is that nearly always, the same group of animals will be bringing up the drag. This is because each herd will establish its own “pecking” order.
cattle to not be
a herd. If you are running a stocker operation, your calves have
probably come from several different herds and don’t
realize they are supposed to be a herd. This means you have to reverse
your actions and teach them to be a herd. Just
takes time and repetition. There will be signs showing if you are headed in the right direction or not with
every move. The biggest and most
immediate sign will be how your cattle act when they go
into a new pasture. Rather than fanning out in all directions to graze
they will, at least for a short amount of time,
remain together, grazing in the same direction. Each time
you move them correctly, they will remain together for a little longer
amount of time. Eventually they will stay together as a herd,
like in the above picture.
The whole secret to letting (not forcing) your cattle act as a herd is to use cattle instinct to your advantage rather than against you. If you get your motion going and keep it going from the back, you are working against yourself and not keeping the cattle as stress free as possible. Think about it for a second. Most of the time you are moving your cattle to fresh feed, so why should that be stressful to them? It should not, in fact your cattle (if they are being handled in a way they are relaxed in) should want to move for you. Keep in mind you will have to work at this and it will take several moves before they start moving for you with little or no effort. To keep them relaxed:
The first couple of times you may have to ride hard to get them lined out as it is not established in them to follow one another (as we have spent their entire lives keeping them from doing so). Once they begin figuring it out you may have to go at a trot just to keep up with them and get them turned into the right gate. In the following video I picked these steers up in a 640 acre stubble field. They had been there for approximately three weeks, and all but five head were together (and those five head were only about 200 yards away). I had driven the cattle out the first gate and across a field to the fence along a county road. This video will show me turn the cattle off the road and leave as 723 steers go through the gate with no one and noting to turn them. This was the second gate of a six gate, three mile move I made with these steers and no help.
These methods work especially well with pairs if you want to keep them paired throughout the move. A few years ago I was working on a large registered outfit. We were always moving pairs in groups of 350 or more. For some reason these guys were always wadding them from the back. Moves which should have taken a few hours would turn into a long day (or several days). One move was dreaded because the cattle would ball up at the bottom of a mountain and turn the wrong way and would not be paired. The funny thing about this was although there was a 10-foot gate right in the road they were trailed down, they wanted to turn the cattle left to take them through a 30-foot gate followed by another turn to the right. One day we gathered that pasture and I talked one of the guys at the bottom of the pasture into opening that narrow gate. I had a couple of interns with me who allowed the cattle to string out, and I just stayed at the front until about 50 yards from the gate, and let them go. The cattle ran through the gate with calves at side, through three more gates and into the trap where we wanted them. A few calves missed the gate, bawled and their mothers came back for them. Needless to say the guy who had argued about them not going through the gate thought it was “lucky” and had nothing to do with letting them string out.
I want to mention one other thing that causes a lot of stress here. It is something nearly everyone does from time to time to make things easier, but that causes a lot of stress. That is farmering down and leading your cattle with a feed wagon. Cattle have their own pecking order. When you stop in the middle of a pasture with a load of feed the same cattle are there at the truck every day and the same cattle are always out on the fringes. Alphas first on feed and the lower down the pecking order, the longer they have to wait to get on feed. When you start moving cattle with feed, they will line up in the same way. The cattle next to the load will be trying to nibble as they go. The ones on the back are waiting to get to feed. It would be like going to a restaurant and fighting with a bunch of NFL linebackers to see who gets to eat first (and adding to the frustration by having your prime rib moving away from you just fast enough that you can’t get to it) After awhile you lose interest and go to some fast food joint.This scenario is even more stressful if you are moving pairs. The calves will automatically drop to the back rather than fight for feed with the cows. They lose track of their mothers, want to go back to where they came from and the wreck is on. Just let them move out, keep your motion going from front to back with the cattle going past you and you will never have problems moving your pairs, no matter how young they are. With yearling cattle, this method will instill the instinct for the cattle to follow one another. Once the cattle get the idea one person can move some pretty large groups of cattle. I regularly move from 300 to more than 700 head of steers with only a deaf dog for help and few problems (Anyone who claims to never have a problem probably never does anything.)